About this Recording
8.573627 - KOŽELUCH, L.: Symphonies, Vol. 1 - P. I:3, 5, 6, 7 (Czech Chamber Philharmonic, Pardubice, Štilec)
English 

Leopold Koželuch (1747–1818)
Symphonies • 1

 

As early as 1772 the English musician and music historian Dr Charles Burney described Vienna as “the imperial seat of music as well as of power”, drawing his readersʼ attention to the presence there of a number of gifted and highly productive composers. Its rise in importance as a musical centre was due largely to a decision made in the late sixteenth century to transfer the court from Prague to Vienna. Where the court went the nobility followed, and Vienna soon eclipsed Prague as the greatest city in the far-flung Habsburg dominions. Like any imperial city, Vienna was a magnet for talented and ambitious artists and musicians from all over Europe, but one group in particular was unusually successful: the Bohemians. In the middle decades of the eighteenth century, some of the leading musical figures in Vienna were Bohemians, among them Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787), Florian Leopold Gassmann (1729–1774), Johann Baptist Vaňhal (Wanhal) (1739–1813) and Leopold Koželuch, while in other European centres composers such as Josef Mysliveček (1737–1781) and Antonio Rosetti (c. 1750–1792) enjoyed deserved fame as composers of international stature.

Visitors to Bohemia were universally impressed by the high quality of the musicians there. Burney observed that he “had frequently been told that the Bohemians were the most musical people of Germany, or, perhaps, of all Europe”, but on visiting there he realised that this apparent musicality was firmly rooted in excellent teaching.

“I found at length, that, not only in every large town, but in all villages, where there is a reading and writing school, children of both sexes are taught music… I went into the school [in Čáslav], which was full of little children of both sexes, from six to ten or eleven years old, who were reading, writing, playing on violins, hautbois, bassoons, and other instruments. The organist had in a small room of his house four clavichords, with little boys practicing on them all: his son of nine years old, was a very good performer.”

Koželuch, born in Velvary, a small town northwest of Prague, may have begun his musical training in just this kind of environment, but his advanced education took place in Prague where he studied counterpoint and vocal writing with his cousin, Jan Antonín Koželuch (1738–1814) and piano and instrumental composition with F.X. Dussek (Dušek) (1731–1799). Dussek, a former pupil of Georg Christoph Wagenseil in Vienna, was the leading keyboard teacher in Prague and a highly accomplished composer of instrumental music. Under his guidance Koželuch [who changed his name to Leopold to avoid confusion with his cousin] developed into an exceptional pianist and a composer of great promise. A flirtation with studying law was abandoned after the successful performance of his first ballets and pantomimes in Prague, and in 1778 he moved to Vienna to pursue a career as a professional musician. Koželuchʼs reputation as a pianist, teacher and composer was sufficiently well established by 1781 for him to decline the position as court organist to the Archbishop of Salzburg made vacant by Mozartʼs dismissal. He began publishing his own works by 1784 and in 1785 he founded a music publishing house (the Musikaliches Magazin) which was later managed by his younger brother, Antonín Tomáš Koželuch (1752–1805). Koželuch also cultivated publishers elsewhere in Europe and his works seem to have been particularly successful in London. It is testimony to Koželuchʼs reputation that the Bohemian Estates commissioned him to compose a cantata for the coronation in Prague of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The success of this work almost certainly played a part in Koželuchʼs appointment in June 1792 as Kammer Kapellmeister and Hofmusik Compositor at the court of Leopoldʼs successor, Emperor Franz II.

In 1797 Koželuch received a letter from the Scottish song collector and publisher George Thomson inviting him to take over from Ignaz Pleyel the task of arranging the songs he had selected for inclusion in his ambitious A Select Collection of Scotish [sic] National Airs. Having agreed on the terms, which also included a commission to write a series of accompanied sonatas incorporating Scots airs, Koželuch set to work with a purpose and proved in short order to be an excellent if at times rather testy collaborator. The scope of the project, which expanded to include Welsh and Irish folk-songs, and Koželuchʼs teaching and duties connected with his court position inevitably had an impact on his own work and from around 1804 his productivity as a composer declined.

Koželuch was an influential figure as a pianist and contemporary writers credited him with playing an important rôle in the development of an idiomatic style of piano playing at a time when the harpsichord was still widely played. Like his compatriot Vaňhal—and to a certain extent Mozart—Koželuch derived a significant proportion of his income from teaching. It was important therefore that his output as a composer reinforced his reputation as a leading exponent of his instrument. Unsurprisingly, he wrote a significant body of works for the piano including sonatas, piano trios and concertos, but he also composed in other instrumental genres. Some of this music has not survived which makes it difficult to assess whether the progressive tendencies seen in some of Koželuchʼs piano music and chamber works extended to his operas, only one of which has survived.

Koželuch’s symphonic output is relatively modest by the standards of the time and the majority of the works were likely composed in the decade following his move to Vienna. These years represent something of a flat period in the history of the symphony in Vienna. Owing to the declining demand for new works due in part to economic factors, a number of composers in Vienna curtailed their output around this time. The most important of these figures was Vaňhal who seems to have ceased composing symphonies by c. 1778, focusing his efforts instead on chamber works and keyboard music. Even Mozart was not immune from this trend. During the ten years he lived in Vienna he composed only a handful of works: a symphony for Linz, a symphony for Prague and the final three symphonies which may have been intended for a tour to England that did not take place. Mozart had other priorities as a composer and was content to neglect the symphony until such time that a work was required.

With the retirement of Vaňhal from the field, Koželuch became for a time his successor as Viennaʼs Bohemian symphonist. His works bear a superficial resemblance to those of the elder composer but they differ significantly in many crucial stylistic details. They are far closer in spirit and technique to the symphonies of Koželuchʼs teacher, Dussek, which were widely performed in Prague but do not appear to have been particularly well known in Vienna. The similarities between the two extend to the handling of the orchestra and musical texture and the style of thematic constructions. As the four works on this recording demonstrate, Koželuchʼs symphonies are fluent, attractive works; they are well conceived and show an impressive command of the symphonic medium. Koželuch is adept at using small motivic figures to unify larger musical structures. The sonata-form movements have comparatively lengthy development sections but their primary function is to delay the triumphant return of the principal theme in the tonic after various tonal adventures, teasings and misunderstandings. Koželuch does not interrogate his thematic material in the concentrated manner of a Haydn or Vaňhal, but the music in these sections is often dramatic and always well paced. Koželuch delights in wrong-footing his listeners in the recapitulation sections by manipulating the melodic line, introducing new harmonic inflections and subtle changes to the orchestration.

The lyricism that is apparent in Koželuchʼs piano writing is also to be heard in the slow movements of these works. One of the most pleasing features of these movements is the skilful way in which the composer varies the theme on each repetition through elegant harmonic changes and the restrained use of embellishment. This ability to reinterpret themes stands Koželuch in good stead in sonata-rondo movements; each return of the theme is invested with its own distinctive character which contributes to the sense of a movement evolving rather than one which is simply constructed out of blocks of complementary musical material.

While there is little in these four symphonies that is not encountered elsewhere, their freshness, verve and technical finish surely won them many admirers in their time and marked their composer as an artist to watch.

Allan Badley


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